Anniversary of JFK’s slaying shadowed Thanksgiving this year
Story Courtesy of Fort Jackson
COLUMBIA — Thanksgiving 2018 marked the 55th anniversary of then-President John F. Kennedy’s assassination; one former Fort Jackson Soldier, a retired journalist, has recounted his experience of the event.
William Whitten of Atlanta was a private, and clerk, at the time. He had just graduated Basic Combat Training on post.
Though a self-described “really low man on the totem pole,” he was the only trainee from his unit able to watch hour-by-hour coverage of the event live on television.
The case, which Whitten says was covered for at least a week straight on TV, will be forever-remembered in U.S. history. Kennedy served as president from Jan. 20, 1961, through Nov. 22, 1963, when he was assassinated in Dallas.
He was in the midst of a cross-country tour, pointing out issues and efforts in the U.S. involving matters such as conservation, education and national security.
It was widely seen as a drive to unite Democrats before the 1964 presidential election, though he hadn’t officially announced his intent to run for a second term.
On his final day in office, he was killed by gunshot wounds as he rode the presidential motorcade through Dealey Plaza. His wife, Jacqueline Kennedy, was with him during his final moments. Also in the motorcade were Texas Gov. John Connally — who was injured in the attack — and his wife, Nellie Connally.
Charged with the crime was Lee Harvey Oswald, a former U.S. Marine. Oswald was later fatally shot in Dallas Police Headquarters.
While news of Kennedy’s death spread across the country, Whitten was in the midst of a saving bond sales class. As the instructor passed out brochures on sales techniques, he mentioned in passing that the president had been shot and killed.
Whitten thought the teacher was joking. “I was waiting for the punchline,” he said. It never came.
After class, Whitten rushed back to the orderly room where his training unit’s only television, a 10-inch black and white beauty, was housed.
As a clerk, he had special privileges to the room that other soldiers didn’t. Entry to the room was strictly controlled, he said.
Whitten kept the other recruits in his unit somewhat updated through his limited contact with them. He proceeded with caution to avoid stepping on leadership’s toes by acting as spokesman for the tragedy. He remained the most informed in his unit.
The official notification of troops that the commander-in-chief had been killed will likely be remembered by even the most ill-informed members of his unit, he said. It was “a defining moment in their lives,” he added. Most were so young — barely out of high school, if they’d even finished.
Whitten calls it one of his most vivid memories.
A couple of days after Kennedy’s death, Fort Jackson troops were lined up in formation outside.
“We were all in ponchos,” Whitten said. As the rain drizzled down, leadership made the announcement. Whitten said it was a “very historic, kind of archaic moment.”
His experience inspired him to do more research into Kennedy’s assassination. Ten years later, after returning to journalism — Whitten had worked in radio before joining the Army — he dived into an investigative piece. Questions surrounding Kennedy’s death had arisen nationwide.
It was contested whether Oswald was really the sole perpetrator of the crime. An audio recording of the event allegedly depicted practically simultaneous gunshots, supposedly indicating the presence of more than one shooter.
The U.S. Department of Justice later denied the likelihood of a second shooter and the conspiracy theories.
Whitten travelled to Dallas, where Kennedy was killed. He teamed up with a Canadian reporter to dig into the allegations. Everyone was still on the hunt for potential accomplices to the crime, Whitten said.
He joined in. “I didn’t find anything,” Whitten said.
There was no spectacular headline, he added, and the story turned into a historical recap of the shooting. Whitten was fine with that outcome. “I’ve always been interested in history,” he said. He also had a passion for writing about presidents.
Once, he even took a morning walk with former-President Harry Truman. Truman was notorious for these early excursions, and he allowed Whitten to join him one day while Kennedy was still in office. “I was trying to be a big-time reporter,” Whitten said.
He asked Truman if he thought Kennedy would run for reelection when his term expired. Truman replied that Whitten would have to ask Kennedy himself.
Whitten did come face-to-face with Kennedy once, though he was never able to ask that fateful question. “I had seen Kennedy as a very young radio reporter,” Whitten recounted. During Kennedy’s tour thanking the troops in the period of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Whitten caught him on tape.
“I made a little 8 millimeter movie of that,” he said. “Almost exactly a year later, he was assassinated.”
Thanksgiving 1963 was a time of mourning. The assassination was just six days prior. “It was a very somber Thanksgiving,” Whitten recalled. “It’s ironic” that the anniversary of his death fell squarely on Thanksgiving this year, he added.